Stay Tuned: Famous family connections on ‘Finding Your Roots’
Several years ago, my sister and I went to Ellis Island and explored the database of passenger arrivals in search of two generations of our family who had emigrated from Italy. We found several entries and the discovery was both exciting and meaningful. Looking at the signatures and our surroundings, we imagined what our ancestors must have felt as they stepped off ships and into new lives.
That same sense of discovery is part of “Finding Your Roots,” a series that researches the lives of the men and women who populate the family trees of influential people. Now in its third season, an element of the show’s appeal is that it plays on the public’s curiosity to know more about the lives of celebrities. It’s part voyeurism, part gossip. But what elevates the show above both of those things are the emotional moments.
Hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show employs genealogists and geneticists to research family histories, which are then compiled into a “book of life” that Gates presents to guests before going through its pages with them. The book reveals unexpected histories. Family lore is debunked, relatives’ tragedies and triumphs are uncovered and the truth elicits genuine reactions. In an episode featuring Dustin Hoffman, the actor tells Gates that he has “so much trouble connecting” to the people who populate the book. Hoffman’s parents, particularly his father, never spoke about the family’s ancestral past. It’s a raw and honest admission and Hoffman breaks down a few times as he learns the fate of his grandfather and great grandfather.
The performance aspect of the show lies more with Gates than with the influential people who are featured as he takes on different roles throughout an episode. One minute, he is a kindly teacher asking: “Guess who that is?” and “Can you find your great grandfather’s name? The next he is a sympathetic therapist. He asks Hoffman: “How are you different from your father?” Later, he tells him: “In fairness, man, this is really heavy stuff for a kid to deal with,” as the actor learns about the childhood circumstances that lead to his father’s emotional distance as an adult.
Using archival footage to represent historical and cultural movements, the series is an interesting history lesson and the selective editing of the celebrities’ relatives ensures that only the most dramatic lives are featured. The overall theme of each show is national and cultural identity. Both concepts are often oversimplified but the episodes have smooth transitions and a good pace. Gates is pleasant, even up-lifting at times. “These are your people!” he says to Mia Farrow, who appears on the episode with Hoffman. It’s a joyous declaration and you share in the connections she has made and for a moment, feel enriched by them.
“Finding Your Roots” is on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EDT on PBS.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.